What a strange beginning to what many have called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
A teenage girl engaged to a carpenter gets pregnant. She claims that an Angel appeared to her to say that she would have a virgin birth. Her fiancé is hesitant to believe her. They cannot make it back home when she is ready to give birth, and they cannot find an Inn in which to stay. So she gives birth in a stable.
The people who come to visit are not the in-laws or other family members, but shepherds—an identity few people desired, like today’s garbage collectors. A few weeks later, Magicians from the East come with their gifts. They are fortune tellers, not religious leaders, and the stars are their scriptures.
The themes of the Greatest Story are not of power, wealth, and worldly notions of success; it is rather the story of people in the margins, people under suspicion, people who are outsiders—people like artists.
When I meet someone on a plane and I tell them I am an artist, I almost always have to go into “explaining mode” to answer the same common questions: “What kind of art do you make?” “Why do you do it?” “Can you make a living?”
If I said I was an electrical engineer, explaining would not be necessary. But tell people, particularly Christians, that I am an artist and I am immediately regarded with suspicion and thoughtless dismissal: “You don’t paint nudes, do you?” “I don’t understand modern art.” “You make that weird stuff that my kids could paint and then call it ‘art,’ don’t you?”
No wonder artist types sit in the back of the church and leave as soon as the music ends, if they come to church at all. Church is for successful people, for respectable folks with real jobs.
But church people forget that the Bible is full of wonderful, strange artsy folks. Ezekiel the prophet believed he was told by God to do performance art like eating a scroll and cooking with human dung. King David danced naked in the streets. The prophet Hosea claimed that God told him to marry a prostitute and, when she’d run off, to keep buying her back from her pimp by baking food for him.
Then you have this pregnant teen who gave birth to a supposed King in a food trough—a King who was first greeted by the garbage collectors of the time. Right.
When I read the Bible as an artist, though, it really makes sense. Artists do all sorts of strange things to communicate—they create language to describe the indescribable. Ezekiel, David, and Hosea were marginalized, poor, outcast, creative, curious—more like artists than “respectable people.” God is also an artist, inventing strange ways to communicate. Since he exists outside Time and Space, He has to translate the indescribable into our notion of the ordinary. He humbled Himself to condescend to us, daring to use us, broken and lost, to do the work of re-creation. And like “modern art,” this looks strange, otherworldly, and full of mystery.
Saint Paul, while in prison, asks for prayer to “boldly proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” The “gospel” is the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which on the surface seems pretty clear. So why does he use the word “mystery?” Why not say, “Pray that I can be clear,” or “Pray that I can be persuasive?” Perhaps what Paul meant by “proclaiming the mystery” was revealing things spoken of in the past, in the Old Testament, secrets that were now being revealed through Christ.
“Mystery” can also, in the generative sense, mean indescribable, unseen, or unforeseen things. Jesus—himself a mysterious, artistic person—often spoke of mysterious things by using parables, stories that did not really work on a normative level. He said things like, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or wear,” and then, as an antidote to our worry addiction, suggested, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them … Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
He told the story of two sons. The younger, wayward son takes his inheritance from his father and goes to town, wasting it all on frivolous pleasures. His father does not stop him from destroying himself, but when the son loses everything and decides that it’s better to be home than homeless, the father throws the biggest party for him, saying, “My son was lost, and is found.” The elder brother is understandably upset with his younger brother’s reckless behavior and cannot fathom why his father would welcome his younger brother home. Where’s the discipline? Where’s the punishment? As Jesus tells this story, he turns to the religious authorities of his day, insinuating that they were that elder brother who did not understand the Father’s frivolous love for his inconstant and selfish child. They were as we often are—legalistic and wayward, an anxious people who cannot stop to appreciate beauty or hear music in the spheres of our world.*
A journey with Jesus is more like being an artist than working a predictable 9-to-5 job. It’s unpredictable, risky, and often strange. It’s an adventure for which you need faith. You don’t need to be a “respectable Christian” to walk with Jesus: in fact, it’s best if you are not. You’ll be better able to wrestle with the deeper realities of your journey, to confront your brokenness. You’ll be able to let your life’s experience become the materials for your craft, articulating that deep mystery within you rather than trying to explain it away.
The church needs artists, because, like Jesus, they ask questions that are at the same time enigmatic and clear, encouraging and challenging. But, unlike Jesus, they are far from perfect. And that’s okay because none of Jesus closest followers were respectable, well put-together people either. Jesus still gave them “authority” because they were chosen, broken creatures in need of a Savior who learned of their dependence on God. He gave them “author-rity” to write the story of the Kingdom and the mystery of redemption. He made them into artists.
We are all chosen, broken creatures and Jesus has made us all into artists, whether we use a brush or simply ride on a garbage truck. Our stories are living stories of the Kingdom that we write every day. Infused with the mystery of the Great Artist’s spirit, our stories can become a wide open adventure—part of the Greatest Story Ever Told.
This lecture was given in Dallas in April, 2010, for Park City Presbyterian Church’s invitation to local artists to create works for the upcoming Christmas season.
*see Tim Keller’s “Prodigal God”